A Disappearing Number. Directed by Simon McBurney. Complicite. Global Peace Auditorium, Hyderabad. 22 August 2010.
Remember Amadeus? There is one line from the film adaptation of the play that I will never forget. Mozart says to the king, "Forgive me, Majesty. I am a vulgar man, but I assure you my music is not." He may never have said such a thing; we will never know, but we do know that it doesn't matter. But with these few words, we approach something like an understanding of a man whose genius we know only through his music.
No such understanding is given to us of another genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan by watching Complicite's play, A Disappearing Number. In this very slick, techincally and choreographically admirable production, nothing of the man behind the numbers is revealed. Like his formulae, we only approach but never arrive at anything approximating the person Ramanujan was. When you consider that Ramanujan died only 80 years ago, that it shouldn't be hard to find out more about him, it's truly puzzling to see such an opaque representation of the man, even in his brief relationship with G.H.Hardy.
This is not a review. It is an expression of my dissatisfaction of the structure of the play that gives more importance to the modern love story of Ruth Minnen and Al Cooper (the character an Indian American), and an annoying sub-plot involving an Indian call centre employee who calls herself Barbara Jones.
There are curious, unexplored asides involving another character of Indian origin - a Ugandan who insists that she is a British national - in one scene, she comes to make Al Cooper's bed in a hotel and side-steps the question of 'where she's originally from'. Something is being said about identities - Cooper identifies himself as American, the son of Indian parents who left for the States even before he was born, and who has never, ever visited India - but it isn't clear what or what it has to do with Ramanujan. In another scene, Ruth, who is visiting India, is in a train with a Ugandan of Indian origin - it isn't clear that it's the same character, though it could well be, since it would seems to bolster the play's central and only premise that the pattern is the thing - and asks her what the meaning of the sacred thread is. The Ugandan, in an astonishing display of mystical knowledge, says it represents the mind, body and the soul, all intertwined.
This is an example of the mystical bullshit that the play - perhaps unconsciously; let's be generous - is full of. At various times, characters, some of them supposedly mathematicians who should know better, are appallingly sentimental about numbers. Ruth's telephone number is significant because it contains a number that Ramanujan once explicated (this telephone number is responsible for a large chunk of the play); in another scene, when Ruth finds out that she is pregnant, she calls Al and tells him that one plus one is not two but three. Oh please.
Then there is the character Ramanujan. You see him in his home, writing on a slate, erasing what he has written with his elbow. His wife remains nameless and is more often than not seen in supposedly respectful half-crouch. In England, to establish his awkwardness in wearing shoes, Ramanujan is shown waddling along Cambridge. Everything about him in England is overdone - his gestures, his facial expressions, even his accent. Is this supposed to be funny? Poignant? What, if we accept that one's demeanour says something about who we are, does this say about Ramanujan? That's he's infantile and incompetent? Comic and inscrutable in every way including in his mathematics that doesn't follow western methods? What do we make of the way he speaks?
Let's talk about accents. We're Indians speaking in English. To ourselves, we don't have an accent. To other ears, our speech might sound strange but no stranger than other accents sound to us. How is this to be represented on stage or on screen? I remember the first film appreciation class I'd ever been to in school. We were 15 then. Someone asked a teacher, who had just shown is Dr. Zhivago, why the people didn't have a Russian accent. "The film's in English. Why should they have Russian accents unless they're Russians speaking to each other in English?" we were asked in return. It was something to think about, and we did. But apparently Complicite didn't think to ask themselves this question, or how they wanted to deal with it.
What this demonstrates is that orientalism is alive and well. India is, to all intents and purposes, still a mystical place where even mathematicians, geniuses though they be, worry about crossing the kalapani, wear their sacred threads and cast their horoscopes and live out the outcomes exactly as predicted, and none of this is problematic in any way at all because this is a story about the early 20th century and such things happened then, this was so, Ramanujan did worry about all these things and probably spoke English with exactly that South Indian wobble we all know and love so well.
Except, this is emphatically not a story about the early 20th century. It's a story about the present, and a supposed discovery of the man and his math by a mathematician and her reluctant but besotted husband. The narrator, a Bengali-Telugu by his name, is also in the present, guiding us through the past to the present time (which we're told in another nugget of mysticism, is All Connected). And he can't seem to bring himself to interrogate anything. If anything, he also gives us his version of the three words that make the sacred thread a symbol of higher-minded abstraction instead of the socially oppressive one is also and really is. At the very least, he ought to have been shamed into silence but of course he won't because the director and the writer have no clue whatsoever of anything other than the prism of the mystic orient through they've decided to view the subject.
It's also an odd and not always unpleasing contrast between the abstract and stripped down mathematics that is at the heart of the play and the highly-overlaid and layered production. At worst, it seems to make math palatable for a viewing audience with spectacle; at best, it is another, spatial expression of concepts that are only half-comprehended but inuited to be beautiful.
There's more to say, but this should suffice. Other not laudatory reviews include this and this one. It should tell us something that most reviews that have appeared in the Indian press are all gushy bedazzlement. There are dissenting views but I haven't seen them written about anywhere. If anyone has, do point them out.
Update: Just for fun, here's Veena's take on the play form three years ago.